So I’ve been meaning to write something in response to conservative dweeb Kevin Williamson’s dweeby screed against Laverne Cox for dweeb magazine The National Review, but Jacob Bacharach pretty much beat me to it:
the Internet bravely rushed in to declare that scientifically she is. “He doesn’t understand the complexity . . .” And we were all treated to a series of semi-coherent expostulations on various human intersex conditions, as if that hasanything to do with the social right of an autonomous human individual to decide whether she wants to live her life as a man or a woman or both or neither, less yet to determine against which physical expression of our species rather aesthetically unfortunate genital she wishes to press her own. If we make the concretized and inevitably temporary axioms of popular (I emphasize) science the preconditions of moral acceptability, then we are in big trouble, people. If Laverne Cox decides tomorrow that she wishes to be referred to by the pronoun Qfwfq and that her gender is henceforth Parthogenetic Quintsexual Proteus Universal then it’s still no skin off my ass, whether ratified by double-blind or by dungeon-master.
For some time, I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with the “their genes are totally gay” defense of gay marriage. For one, the specific genetic cause remains entirely unproven. More importantly, “they can’t help it, so I guess we should let them do it” argument is insulting, and not at all a call for greater sexual or romantic freedom. I get that people were dealing with real political exigency, and the tangible gains have been impressive. But the movement should be for freedom and equal dignity and respect, not for a narrow biological determinism that constrains more than it frees. I mean, think about the logic here: if the right to engage in homosexual behavior stems from an immutable biological attribute of some people, then doesn’t that mean that people who don’t have that attribute can fairly be barred from that behavior? “Sorry, Gary, I know you’d like to sleep with Jim here, but we ran the test and you just aren’t gay.” If we could identify the gay gene, would people applying for gay marriages have to be tested for it before they got one? It would be an absurd impediment to freedom, but it’s also a perfectly logical extension of that kind of thinking.
As the great Yasmin Nair once wrote, “The biology argument, taken to its logical end, suggests that we turn around to the Right or, for that matter, many on the so-called Left who also grant rights based on ‘nature,’ and tell them that it’s okay to discriminate against, kill, maim, brutalize those who might be seen as ‘choosing to be this way.'”
Gender is, of course, a related but separate issue from sexual identity. But I think the same bad logic reigns in a lot of progressive circles: adopting a vision of trans people as being straightforwardly conditioned by their biology and, consequentially, deserving of the right to live the way the want to. This stands in contrast with the alternative, which is that they have the right to pursue whatever self-identity they choose because they are human beings with self-determination and it costs the rest of us absolutely nothing to recognize that right. Andrew Sullivan wrote of the Williamson piece, “the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse.” No, the impulse to reconcile yourself in that way is the impulse to own yourself, and that is an entirely non-ideological impulse; it’s the impulse to live as a free human being. What’s conservative is the notion that people have only the right to be that which they can’t help being.
This attitude’s limitations towards gender are revealed in the phenomenon of the young child coming out as trans article. Some 5, 6 year old child will live with a gender identity that’s not the same as the one they were assigned at birth, the parents will allow the child to exist with that identity, the media will pick it up, conservatives will fume, and allies in the progressive world will come to that child’s defense. Well, better than the alternative where it’s just the Kevin Williamsons of the world yelling at parents for loving their child in the best possible way. But whenever these controversies flare up, these progressive allies have a very discomfiting tendency to celebrate these kids precisely to the degree that they represent a symbol of progressive assumptions about gender. “This kid is a boy/girl/intersex! How dare anyone call him/her/they something other than a boy/girl/intersex! They have no choice! They were born that way!” By the time they get done, they’ve pinned the kid down like a butterfly on the wall of a museum. They are just as aggressive in policing someone else’s gender identity as the conservatives they decry; they just police it the other way. I always end up thinking, you know, guys, maybe someday this kid will have something to say about it.
And that leads to the biggest problem with biological determinism: it is profoundly unfriendly to people whose gender identities continue to evolve. Because as people who have exposure to many actual trans people know– in contrast with those who are simply internet allies– it is not that rare for trans people to transition to a particular gender identity and then, later, transition again. Yes, there are certainly many trans people who are born thinking that they have a gender identity other than that they were assigned at birth, who transition to that identity, and who remain comfortable within it for the rest of their days. That’s great. But there are also people who experience their own gender as a shifting and complex phenomenon. I’ve known some in my real life. Some people who were assigned the male gender at birth transition to female for awhile, then transition back. Some refuse to adopt one particular gender identity at all, because that does not reflect their own, lived experience and feelings. Life is complicated, gender is complicated. So: are these people deficient? Should they not have the right to continue to explore and evolve and change? Are they somehow guilty of dishonesty? That’s an absurd, ugly stance to take. Yet if you say that gender transitions are not always a permanent phenomenon, in some environs of the online world, you will be immediately labelled transphobic and a bigot. And so a movement that is meant to liberate subtly conditions some people to distrust their own, real, personal experience of gender identity. “Trans people are born that way and that’s it, says I, progressive ally” is just another way to tell some people they’re living the wrong way.
None of this is to say that gender is a choice or that trans people are just acting or that there’s nothing intrinsic about what they feel and experience. As Bacharach says,
I’m sure genetic inheritance and gene expression do influence sexuality; likewise, intelligence and hair color and the desire to eat, or not to eat, cilantro; but the desperate reductivism that keeps popping up to declare that this or that immensely complex trait is the result of some butterfly-pinned nucleotide—and the attendant desire to draw some kind of socioeconomic conclusion therefrom—reeks of both the alchemical and the eugenic.
Are some conservative jerks going to exploit the mutability, complexity, and sheer variety of human gender experience to undermine the right to live the way you want to live? Yeah. Sure. To adopt a biological determinist viewpoint simply because it’s rhetorically or politically convenient is a terribly misguided thing to do, a choice to play ball on the conservative home court. Don’t do it.
I think, frankly, that people who have a strict “born this way” attitude towards gender are guilty of thinking like Kevin Williamson. Maybe they wanted to think that through.